I never would have guessed I would be able to put Patagonia on my travel bucket list, much less cross it off. But after Sierra and Katie-Jane spent hours on the phone and pouring over bus schedules and airplane tickets and a generous friend of a family friend who owns a cabin in Patagonia was disgustingly generous enough to let us stay there, we found a way to get there.
Let me just say, Chile does not want you to visit Patagonia. I understand it keeps its notorious beauty and pristine natural resources clean and quiet, but it requires dedication and determination to actually get there. This may include but is not limited to: several days on a bus, a series of ferry rides through an archipelago, various flights that can only be booked on backwater websites or in person, rental car services, and hitchhiking.
So, when I found myself stumbling out of a microscopic 12-passenger puddle-jumper airplane into the crisp Chilean mountain air, I was relieved. I was finally somewhere. Somewhere kind of looked like redneck eastern Washington, but it wasn't inside of a bus. Arriving at the cabin many hours later though, felt like I'd died and gone to heaven.
a few dreary frames from a rainy day at the cabin
Our first adventure was getting to drive cars for the first time in months down Patagonia's only highway trying to find the trailhead of a volcano. We stopped to look at directions with a slow network connection and pick flowers in the meantime. A little old lady named Blanca came out of her house. Initially, we thought she was going to tell us to stop picking flowers and leave the space in front of her yard, but instead, she brought us some homegrown roses to go with the girls' bouquets.
One thing about Chile is that Chileans do not know about switchbacks. The trailhead said 4.8 kilometers but they failed to mention it was literally a direct route up a mountain to the overview with a smoking volcano on the other side of a deep gorge. Gorgeous. Breathtaking even.
To Lick a Glacier
The next day we went in search of a hike that went to a glacier. We actually tried to go to the glacier the day before but got lost and gave up and went to the volcano instead. Directions to the trailhead were given vaguely by a park ranger, who didn't even know if the trail was open, despite the trailhead being inside their park. They also told us it would be a 10 km hike. Ambitious considering it was already 1 pm (we aren't very good at getting out of the house early, especially when said house is a cozy cabin filled with tea and pancakes next to an idyllic river). But I really wanted to lick a glacier. It's water that hasn't been liquid in thousands of years. Revolutionary.
We started by parking in the wrong spot and hiking a kilometer in the wrong direction. So we turned around, still filled with optimism, and drove the cars to the correct spot. The hike now involved 2 km straight up a gravel road with a slant so steep as to be used in a math problem about ideal triangles. Then one more kilometer straight down to the actual trailhead.
There were some rangers there at the campsite who told us the hike was now... 10 kilometers. Huh. Just like when we started three hours ago. We sat in the Sound of Music field of green grass, gazing off down the valley at the top of the glacier that tumbled down from between two peaks, convincing ourselves that if we could see it then it must be quite close.
So we set off across a flat river valley, slapping at biting flies and filled with the optimism of companionship and the beauty of creation. After trudging through marshes, across rocky streambeds, and through bamboo clusters, we happened upon a couple who was returning. They had wisely started their hike at 7 am. They informed us it was 45 more minutes to the bottom of the glacier and 2 hours after that to the top. By this point, it was getting close to 6 pm; I had only eaten a small peanut butter and jelly sandwich since breakfast at 10 am, and I was beginning to disenjoy myself. We split into two groups: some forged ahead at breakneck Zoro-walking-speed, and some of us sunbathed by the river after jumping in the barely liquid water.
We made it back to the cars after nine, just as the dusk of the austral summer was ending. Lisiane had stayed behind at the cars, and we were not surprised to see she'd made friends with all of the campers there and had even procured hot water. Sadly I got no ancient water, but it was one of the most majestic hikes of my life.
Leaving Chaiten, the tiny town at the very northern tip of the area of Patagonia, proved to be even more complicated than getting there. It involved quite a few bus rides and an overnight stay in one of the most perfect and authentic little fishing towns on the coast of an inlet. It was clearly frequented by travelers, but at the same time was filled with school children and old ladies and locals doing life.
The ferry rides across the ocean between islands and peninsulas felt like being in a chapter of a book where the main characters are going through some pensive emotional upheaval of leaving home or they're inadvertently escaping an apocalypse by being in the middle of nowhere at the right time. We sat in round cushioned booths in the passenger cabin of the ferry and watched foggy jungle mountains scroll past.
Back to a Reality
As our travels brought us closer and closer to Rurrenabaque, it felt like returning home. We were tired of red-eye flights and bus seats and grocery bag snack meals. We had seen unforgettable wonders but were ready for our cozy bug nets and the Bolivian friends we'd already come to miss. On the final bus ride, the scenery shifted from the first-world cities we had been staying in to a more familiar scene of elevated shacks in various states of construction or deconstruction, assorted sickly chickens, signs offering assortments of consumables, and random children trying to find a place for themselves in the dirt. People's homes and lives laid dissected in the dust.
The unbelievable experience we were returning from truly felt like a dream. Maybe it was the constant sleep deprivation and feverish pace, but it passed in an overwhelmingly glorious smudge of color beyond Rurre's smudges of yellow dust and deep green foliage. Returning back to the color palette felt like waking up. We were now back in the real world, where money had to be earned and children had to be fed. Where money was spent on drugs and children were left hungry.
Life was now real. Life was close. Life was not about traveling and seeing wonders of the world and stressing over how to get to a free cabin in Patagonia. It was about simply living in world where one didn't worry about grad school applications and tax returns and class schedules and gas prices and car mileage and Taco Bell customer service and getting a phone that takes good enough photos. It was about making dinner. About sitting on the porch waiting for someone to buy your juice. It was about evicting chickens from the kitchen. About replacing that rusty piece of tin that stopped keeping rain out of the bedroom.
Life was now about eating and sleeping and having tangled family trees and having exactly one shirt. Life was now about toddlers throwing up in the grass and about mothers selling themselves to buy something advertised as medicine. Life was now about having abusive family members and thinking it is the normal thing to do the same when you grow up. About sleeping in the dirt and never brushing your teeth and not knowing there is an alternative. It was about unmendable gulfs of disparity between my bus window and this real, authentic, close manifestation of the human experience.
All my love of travel came crashing against the overwhelming roar of reality. I had been an idiot to think I could plug my ears against the world's pain. Maybe I've been doing it my whole life and only just now noticed. Maybe I've been trying to listen my whole life and only am just beginning to learn how to understand. Now I have a daily choice of two irreconcilable options: a reality of consequences or a dream of beauty. I wasn't sure I could choose.
Then Hermano Juan picked us up in town and a few short minutes later we were rolling through the gates of Familia Feliz. Shouts came over the high walls of the truck bed. The doors opened and the kids came streaming from all corners of campus with grins and joy and love. They had missed us, and that made my choice the easiest thing in the world.